Probably the most Icelandic moment in ‘Nói albínói’—and this is a very Icelandic movie, about Malt Extract, carrot cake, winter, and depression—is the scene in which our hero romances a girl by teaching her to smoke cigarettes. Indoors. In 2003. There is a town-that-time-forgot quality to Bolungarvík as captured in Dagur Kári’s domestic and international critical hit. Vinyl tablecloths still cover kitchen tables, and the peak of Bolafjall looms above everything, icy-blue in the permanent twilight, deadening the spirit.
Played by French-Icelandic actor Tómas Lemarquis, Bolungarvík high-schooler Nói albínói—“Nói the albino”—in fact has alopecia universalis, and he covers his shiny head and hairless eyebrows with a knit cap, though he wears trainers and a Members Only jacket through the depth of the Westfjörds winter. He lives with his wobbly grandmother, who passes her days with an inexorably progressing jigsaw puzzle and curiously retro aerobics; his father, an alcoholic taxi driver and huge Elvis fan, often enlists him as a drinking buddy. Dad’s advice about girls concludes with an exhortation to please wear a condom; Nói’s mother is nowhere to be seen.
Nói is a willfully terrible student, sleeping through class and handing in blank test papers when he bothers to go to school at all, though he’s quick with a Rubik’s Cube and often kills time in a used bookstore (whose owner, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “New York Fuckin City,” is the sceptical father of the gas-station checkout girl Nói begins to romance). Lemarquis gives a fantastic performance, channeling his natural charisma into expressions of sullenness and simple joy, and flashes of defiance, conveying Nói’s burning desire for a better life somewhere more meaningful—or at least different. It’s no wonder Nói eventually begins to reenact the lyrics to his father’s favourite song, “In the Ghetto.”
While so many indie films, from all around the world, unfold entirely in minor-key “quirky” or “well-observed” touches of small-town life, ‘Nói the Albino’ is robustly funny and achingly dire. Writer-director Dagur Kári, making his first feature film, stages jokes expertly, with long takes, wry cutaways, and apt blocking, and his comic flourishes are grand, particular a set piece involving a blood sausage bloodbath. His invocation of small-town despair is lofty and literary, with rhyming motifs of Kierkegaardian existentialism and gravedigging (the Icelandic word for graveyard is “kirkjugarður”), and a devastating ending ripped from recent Westfjörds history. The film swept the Icelandic Edda awards and received admiring reviews abroad; Dagur’s subsequent films, both Icelandic and American, went on to play prestigious festivals like Cannes and Tribeca. It’s a running joke in the Icelandic film industry that the typical Icelandic film is about an unfulfilled man, either brooding or inept, in a crisis of inertia, usually in a remote place: think of the recent ‘Á annan veg’, ‘Bakk’, or the Westfjords-set ‘Paris of the North’. But ‘Nói’ remains the definitive version, and one of the best of all Icelandic films.
How to watch: The film was released on DVD by Palm Pictures (US) and Artificial Eye (UK), and is available to stream with English subtitles at www.icelandiccinema.com.